06/01/2011 08:56 am ET Updated Aug 01, 2011

How to Cope with Life's Chaos

A piece of advice: If you are a writer, think carefully about what you write about, because it's quite likely you'll soon be tested on it. After posting on embracing life's extremes, you could say the past week has been a master class in putting my money where my mouth is.

The night after my essay published, I dreamt I was woken from sleep in a courtly chamber, summoned by someone of importance. In the dream, once awake, I had to walk down a very long corridor past a large audience lining both sides to get to the one calling me.

Only problem was, I was completely naked. The funny thing is that in my dream, I didn't feel too ashamed of this. I felt some embarrassment, sure, but not as much as I might if this were a real-life situation. I actually recall in the dream my bravery in steadily meeting a few of the gawkers' gazes.

It wasn't hard for me to trace the origin of my dream to that first essay, where I willingly put myself in a vulnerable, emotionally naked position in such a public forum. I think my less embarrassed self in the dream was a manifestation of this: When I take time to allow space for and articulate my inner whisperings, as one commenter put it, I feel more liberated than vulnerable. As for who was actually summoning me, I can only conclude that it was my authentic self.
Empowerment through essay: I highly recommend it.

So here's where things get interesting...

* * *

A few days later, I'm tidying up the kitchen and reflecting on this dream when I feel a familiar tug on the hem of my skirt.

"Mama, Mama!," my three-year-old son Jonah scolds in a mock disciplinary tone, "I'm putting you in a time out!"

"For what?," I ask.

"For not being in the TV room with me!" Then he tacks on, "And for eating all the fishy crackers!" My responses, in order: Cringe, followed by guilty grin.

He doles out his sentence: "So, come sit in your chair for three minutes!"

My time-out rule with Jonah is one minute for each year of his age. If I had to sit a minute for each year, let's just say I'd be sitting long enough for a prime-time sitcom to resolve itself, plus some.

Thankfully, I was only condemned to three.

So, I looked around my messy kitchen, sighed and then reported to the TV room to dutifully serve my sentence.

* * *

I basically landed in my time-out because I hadn't been attentive. Jonah had been asking me for over an hour to watch "Toy Story 3" with him. You see, I had gotten him set up with a movie so that I could clean the house. He's usually content with this arrangement but on this particular day, he wanted my attention.

So every 10 minutes or so when he'd ask me to stop what I was doing to watch the movie with him, I'd say: "Just hold on. Let me get this load in the wash/get dinner started/unload the dishwasher and I'll be right there." I felt guilty for this repeated response, but my desire -- my obsession, even -- to get my house in order over-ruled as I tried to get just one more thing done.

But this last time I could tell Jonah was serious in his demand, so I grabbed our dinner and joined him on the couch where he exhibited some leniency in telling me it was "mama's turn" to watch the TV. So there we sat sharing a bowl of leftover pork stew, me flipping through the channels, when we stumbled across, of all things, "Under the Tuscan Sun."

Oh, the irony.

The movie's character, after seeking an extreme solution (moving to Italy! buying a dilapidated villa!) to an extreme problem (a surprise divorce), finds herself in a place of immense imbalance, conflicting emotions and uncertainty as she tries to piece her life -- and her newly acquired crumbling house -- back together.

If last week's lesson was about assimilating two extremes to find balance, then this week it's all about learning to sit in the middle of where those extremes overlap (imagine the shared space between two overlapping circles) and truly bear witness to that state. And then be okay with it. Or, determine how to change it.

We might call this state "chaos" or "imbalance," but I remind you that these are just labels we choose to classify a string of neutral events, or even overlapping, seemingly conflicting and mutually exclusive extremes. Instead of assigning a totally negative-leaning word, I call this state my "fabulously beautiful mess." If you're going to embrace a life full of "both/and"-ness, you've got to do just that: embrace it all.

Like I said, this past week was a challenge for this perfectionistic, control-freak, harried mama trying to navigate through my jumbled-up, complicated life. Yes, I'm keeping my island house, but now I'm house-poor. Yes, I want to spend time with my son, but I also believe we both function better in a tidy, peaceful home. The list goes on and on.

British comic book author Alan Moore has his own take on these overlapping extremes: "Life isn't divided into genres. It's a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you're lucky." Ain't that the truth?

So, as a busy single mom, whenever I'm trying to work through confusion over a situation comprised of extremes, I try to literally stop the spinning and -- usually through prayer and reflection -- ask myself these five questions:

1. How does this situation make me feel? Agitated, frustrated, exhausted, angry, sad?

2. What are the sticking points of discomfort for me? Can I live with them, or change them in any way?

3. Is this situation really chaotic or imbalanced, or might it be part of a divine design (thus, falling in line with some sort of order) for me to learn from?

4. If I stop to listen and observe this situation, how can I make progress toward what I want for my life?

5. What are the specific steps or I need to take, and how can I prioritize them or perhaps even set some "due dates" for action items? What support do I need to make this happen?

Now, I ask you: What life events with conflicting extremes have you disoriented and confused? Can you embrace them both and, in that overlap, appreciate all of that beautiful, jumbled messiness for what it is -- yet still maintain a steady focus toward your goal?

I'm not Diane Lane starring in a movie set in the romantic Italian wine country, though that would be nice. This is real life, and in my life, the answers don't come before the credits or even at the end of a buttoned-up essay. Or, unlike in my dream, I don't always exhibit unwavering confidence when navigating through real life.

But if I'm gentle with myself and am grateful for my circumstances -- and then ask the questions and build space in my life to reflect on them and listen (more on this topic next week) -- I find that the right answers do eventually emerge.

And I invite you to join me:

Be gentle with yourself.

Practice gratitude.

Ask the questions [see above].

Create space for the answers -- and they'll come.